Read an Excerpt
South Platte, Colorado
Rider! Coming in fast!"
Leah Hollister didn't have time to worry about her luggage tossed carelessly to the ground by the stagecoach driver, or the fact that the coach's rapid exit had drenched her feet in wet, cold snow. She heard horse's hooves pounding the ground, bearing down on her and the four-year-old child whose hand she gripped tightly within her own.
"Move, lady!" Panic filled the male voice that called out.
Leah scooped up the little girl and fled across the icy snow toward the porch of the large log cabin closest to her. Reaching it, she turned in time to see a young man on a horse speed past, leaping over her luggage with ease and heading toward a barn that was located on the far side of the house. Aware of the danger she'd just escaped, Leah's hands started to shake.
Two men were in front of the barn. One of them sat on a compact, sorrel-colored horse. The other man stood off to the side, watching the transfer between the riders, just as Leah was doing.
The first rider handed a flat leather saddle bag to a man astride a mustang. As soon as the second rider had the bag, he laid low over his horse's neck and was gone almost as fast as the first young man had ridden in.
Leah stared after the rider until he could no longer be seen. She shivered as a blast of icy wind hit her uncovered face. Where was he going in such a hurry? Her gaze moved back to the barn and stable. The two other men had disappeared, presumably inside.
Molly buried her face in Leah's neck and shivered. She tried to burrow her slight body closer. One small gloved hand tangled in the opening of Leah's coat, allowing more cold air in, while the other clung to her worn rag doll.
Taking a deep breath, Leah walked back to their luggage, which still sat in the middle of the yard. Her tired brain tried to register what had just happened. Why had those riders been in such a hurry? What was in that bag that was so important? She'd never seen anything like it, but then, she hadn't seen much of life outside of an orphanage. Even the stagecoach ride had been exciting to a girl who'd been so completely sheltered. It dawned on her that perhaps the stage stop was also a pony express stop as well.
Her body trembled from cold as well as fright as she set Molly down and reached for the closest bag. The child's feet went in different directions on the slick, packed snow and Leah grabbed for her, helping her to stand upright again.
"You're okay," she comforted, but to her dismay, her voice wavered. Leah swallowed hard then leaned forward, determined to get her luggage and move them inside, out of the cold and out of danger's way. As she reached for the handle, her weight shifted and she did a little dance trying to regain her balance, but she couldn't stop the movement of her feet or the slickness of the ice underneath them. Leah's boots slipped out from under her and she fell, face forward, into her suitcases.
She groaned. This day had just gone from bad to worse. Tiredness lay on her shoulders like a mountain of snow on a small hilltop.
A man extended a hand to help her up. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Leah pretended not to see his outstretched hand and used the nearest bag to push herself up from the ground. The toe of her boot caught in the hem of her dress. She groaned as she heard the tearing of fabric. Working to untangle her foot with as much dignity as she could muster, Leah pushed herself upright once more and dusted the snow from the front of her dark green traveling dress. "I believe so." She felt Molly's hand bunch up in her skirts.
The sharp voice softened as he offered, "Here, let me help you carry these inside the station."
For the first time, Leah looked at the owner of the deep voice. He scooped up two of the larger bags and stood tall before her. She estimated him to be about six feet, maybe an inch taller. He wore what looked like a buckskin coat and a brown, floppy hat. Dark brown boots covered his feet. She couldn't help but notice he also wore some sort of gun on his narrow hip.
Her breath caught in her throat when she glanced up to find a pair of soft, coffee-colored eyes watching her. Eyes that earlier had been wide with concern now seemed full of unhidden laughter. Even so, she liked his eyes and the deepness of his voice.
Embarrassed, Leah looked away; she pulled her short, threadbare coat around her. "Thank you for your help, Mr.?"
"Just Jake, ma'am."
"Jake." The cold November wind pulled at her straight, mousy-brown hair, reminding her that she was no beauty and that she was soon to be a married woman. She raised her head. "I'm ready." He nodded and then strolled to the front porch.
A tiny hand tugged at her skirts once more. Leah reached down and picked up the little girl. Molly tucked a gloved thumb between her plump lips and laid her head on Leah's shoulder. She knew Molly was tired from their trip. Warmth for the little girl filled her heart as Leah patted her back.
Jake returned and picked up the other two bags. His gaze searched hers, a quizzical look in their depths. "You really should get inside, ma'am." Once more he turned to walk to the porch.
Leah nodded but didn't move forward. She focused her attention down the snow-covered road toward the town laid out before her. South Platte, Colorado, a small town that was about ten miles from Julesburg, Colorado. From what she could see through the falling snow, South Platte had a general store, a restaurant, a blacksmith shop, a livery, a church, and from the sound of the piano coming through an open door, a saloon.
Leah frowned. Did she really want to be here? She sighed. What other choice did she have? She had promised to deliver Molly to her uncle, Jake Bridges, and to marry Mr. Thomas Harris.
Her gaze jerked to the wide shoulders and back of the man carrying her luggage. Could that Jake be Molly's uncle, Jake Bridges?
For the first time she focused on the house that served as the stagecoach stop and also functioned as a pony express home station. A large log house stretched out before her. Sheds, various outbuildings and the barn surrounded the log house. Even though it was early, a full month before Christmas, the house had red and green fabric twisted into a form of garland on the second-story railing. A Christmas wreath hung on the door.
To one side of the house, a small grove of trees was the only vegetation in sight. The sound of running water had her looking over her shoulder at a river that was mostly frozen over. It wasn't close to the house, so she felt sure Molly would be safe.
The little girl shivered in her arms. Leah pulled Molly closer, realizing that every day she spent with her would make it harder for both of them when the time came to part. Leah would soon move out to the Harris ranch, and Molly would move into her uncle Jake's home, wherever that might be.
"Are you coming?" The man named Jake opened the door to the ranch-style building. His gaze ran over her and the little girl before he turned and stepped inside.
His deep voice pulled her from the stupor she'd been in and Leah nodded. If he truly was Jake Bridges, then Leah knew she'd have to get word to Thomas Harris of her arrival. Or perhaps she could hire Jake to take her out to the Harris ranch.
Thomas Harris's name whispered through her tired mind as she sat the child back down and scooped up the last remaining bag, Molly's bag. She really didn't know Mr. Harris, other than what she had read in the two letters he'd sent. They'd never met or exchanged pictures. The thought of marrying a complete stranger both scared her and offered a strange sense of comfort. Being Thomas Harris's wife would give her a permanent home. Something Leah had wanted all her young life.
Molly's little hand tangled into her skirt once more, reminding her that she had to take care of the child before she even contemplated her own life. Molly had been Leah's constant companion for over three months.
Knowing cholera was sweeping Sweetwater, Texas, at a rapid pace, Molly's father had brought her to the orphanage for safekeeping. The children and people who worked there very seldom came into contact with the town folks and he'd felt sure that Molly would be safe from the sickness that was sweeping the area. Then, when it became clear that both Molly's parents had taken ill, Mrs. Wilkins, the headmistress of the orphanage, had placed the little girl in Leah's care.
Molly's story was a sad one, for sure. Her mother had been the first to become sick. The poor woman died after several long days and then Molly's father had taken ill. He'd struggled against death, knowing he'd be leaving the little girl behind. It was only after he'd written a letter to his brother and then extracted the promise from Leah that she'd take Molly to his brother in Julesburg, Colorado, that he'd finally given up his battle. Fortunately, Molly would grow up knowing her parents had loved her, unlike Leah, whose parents had abandoned her on the orphanage doorstep when she was less than a year old.
Leah craved a home, and Molly's arrival in her life had made her realize how much. Shortly after John Bridges's death, Leah had answered Thomas Harris's ad for a mailorder bride. She'd learned from the ad that the Harris ranch was located in the same general area where Jake Bridges lived. She'd hoped to be close to the child and still be able to have a husband and a home.
Leah looked down at Molly. She still wanted to make sure the child was settled before she continued with her own life. No child should ever be left alone in this world.
Leah stepped up onto the porch. Making sure Molly was safe had become of utmost importance. If this Jake was her uncle, then Molly and Leah's time together would soon be over. Leah felt a tug at her heart and it wasn't comfortable. She was going to miss the little girl.
Jake reappeared and took the bag from her. His gaze darted to Molly before he went back into the house. Had she seen a flicker of recognition on his face? Surely not. Even if Molly was Jake Bridges's niece, Molly's father had said his brother had never met the little girl.
He dropped the bag inside the door and then held it open for Leah and Molly to enter. Warm air stung Leah's chilled face. She looked about the spacious room. One half was a sitting area and the other looked like a dining room. The smell of coffee teased her tired senses as a door opened on the other side of a long kitchen table and a heavyset woman entered.
Seeing the two of them standing in the doorway, the woman rushed across to Leah and grabbed her hand, pulling her farther into the house. Her warm hands felt wonderful against Leah's ice-cold one. "Come on in, child. You must be chilled to the bone."
Leah allowed the woman to guide her toward the table. She noticed that the young rider who'd almost run them down was already seated. He held a steaming mug in his hands.
"I'll go get you a cup of coffee. That will warm you up and then you can tell us all about yourself." The woman left the room before Leah could respond.
"We weren't expecting anyone to arrive on the stage today." Jake pulled out a seat for her before he sat down.
The young rider added, "I'm surprised the stage came this far out with the snow falling and another storm on the way."
Both men stared at her as if waiting for her to speak. Leah didn't know what to say. Did she want to confide in total strangers?
How did she tell them that she and Thomas had agreed to meet in South Platte and then get married in Julesburg, Colorado? That Thomas had promised her a fine home and lots of room to raise flowers during the spring and summer months.
He'd sent stagecoach tickets and money for both her and Molly to travel to the pony express station in South Platte. Leah remembered feeling blessed that her future husband was a generous man. She'd followed his written instructions and taken the very next stage out as winter had already hit Colorado and there would be no further chances for her to arrive before summer.
However certain she had been about the plans she'd made, discussing her personal business with strangers went against the grain and she found herself reluctant to divulge any private information. Did she really want to share all that? She took a deep, fortifying breath.
The older woman returned and placed a steaming mug down in front of Leah. "Here, drink this. It will make you feel better in no time." She was a short, plump woman with bright blue eyes. "I'll have your cider out in a few moments, Jake. Would the little one like a cup of hot apple cider, too?"
Molly nodded. Her doe-like eyes studied everyone about the table. Then she ducked her head and hid her face behind Leah.
"That would be lovely. Thank you." Leah patted Molly on the back.
The woman smiled and hurried back into what Leah assumed was the kitchen. For some odd reason, Leah had figured Jake to be a coffee-drinking man but it was obvious that the older woman knew he'd want apple cider.
Uncomfortable silence filled the room. Leah leaned down and unbuttoned Molly's coat. She pulled the little stocking hat from the girl's head. Soft blond curls floated about her angelic face. No one spoke as Leah removed the gloves from Molly's hands. She looked into the little girl's warm brown eyes. "Better?"
Molly nodded and tucked her thumb into her mouth once more. At four years old, she should have already stopped sucking her thumb, but with both her parents gone, Leah didn't have the heart to take away that single comfort from the little girl. She pulled Molly up onto her lap.
Leah picked up the hot cup and took a sip. She was surprised that the coffee tasted so rich and full. She'd been traveling for days, and most of the places the stage had stopped had served weak coffee with hardly any flavor. She almost sighed out loud as its warmth slowly filled her chest and stomach.
The woman returned with a metal pot that she set on the table and two more steaming mugs. The smaller one she placed in front of Molly. "Here you go, little one. This should help warm you up." A gentle smile graced her lips as she looked at Molly.
The sweet fragrance of apples drifted from the cup. Leah noted it was only about half full and didn't steam like her coffee or Jake's larger drink. She picked up the cider and handed it to Molly. It was warm to the touch, not hot. "Thank you." She offered a wobbly smile.